Restaurant Workers' Group Releases Ethical Eating Guide

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Should diners think about how restaurant workers are treated when ordering a meal? Should diners think about how restaurant workers are treated when ordering a meal? (pixieclipx/flickr)

Ethical eating is not a new concept. Five years ago, Michael Pollan began talking about how the food we eat affects the health of the environment in "The Omnivore's Dilemma." More recently, in the first episode of the IFC television series "Portlandia," Carrie and Fred went to great lengths to make sure the chicken they planned to order lived and was harvested humanely.

Now a restaurant workers' organization is moving beyond how food choices affect the environment or the lives of animals that end up on the menu. The group Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United wants consumers to consider how the people making their food are being treated with the help of a 52-page manual released Tuesday called ROC National 2012 Diners' Guide: A Consumer Guide on the Working Conditions of American Restaurants.

The guide rates roughly 150 restaurants nationwide, including eateries where the organization has members. The ratings are based on a variety of sources, including restaurant workers' wages, paid sick leave, opportunities for career advancement, and wage theft and discrimination lawsuits.

Restaurants are divided into three categories in the guide: quick serve, casual and fine dining.

"It's just a very easy way for consumers to choose restaurants that put fairness in their menu," said Daisy Chung, assistant director of the ROC United New York office.

Some restaurant chains, like Five Guys Burgers and Fries, received gold prizes for giving workers paid sick days and staff promotions, as did Cowgirl in the West Village and celebrity chef Tom Colicchio's Craft Restaurants for paying hourly minimum wages starting at $5 with tips and $9 without tips. The Washington, D.C. institution Ben's Chili Bowl got a silver prize for giving paid sick days to its workers.

Paid sick days are rare in the restaurant industry. The federal minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13 and $7.25 for restaurant workers who don't get tips.

"You need to sort of take care of the people who are really taking care of your food," said Barbara Sibley, owner of the Mexican restaurant La Palapa in the East Village, which also got a gold prize for providing sustainable wages and paid sick days to staff.

Others, like Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurants, got frowny face icons based on legal charges filed for worker discrimination and wage theft at the restaurant's parent company, Darden Restaurants. On Tuesday, ROC United is launching a national campaign against Darden.

Judy Maeza, the general manager for La Palapa, who has worked in the restaurant industry for 25 years, said she couldn't understand the practices of any restaurant that didn't get a gold or silver prize in the guide.

"How could you not pay people for working?" she said. "And pay them when they're legitimately sick or letting them take a week's vacation? You know, all the things that any other industry takes for granted."

Maeza added that although she was in favor of the guide, she didn't know how many consumers would change their dining plans to eat ethical.

"They're not that interested," she said. "They know they want to go some place that they like for dinner. They don't think about how the kitchen employees are treated."

The restaurant industry is one of the fastest growing in the country, according to ROC United, and employs over 10 million workers nationwide. The Restaurant Opportunities Centers United was formed after 9/11 to support displaced restaurant workers. Now the group has 9,000 members in nine states.



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Comments [5]

Sally G

I would like to see a poll not asking what customers “should do”, but what the individual WILL do when selecting a restaurant. If answers are honest, that would seem to me to be more meaningful a question.

Feb. 01 2012 06:12 PM
Miranda from SF

Seems to me, restaurants are one of the last places where the blue-collar labor actually has to happen HERE in America. Plenty of other industries have outsourced their lowest-paying jobs and paid them even less, but that's not possible in a restaurant. This should be a wake-up call that we benefit from unethical conditions all the time -- just that these conditions are feet away in a restaurant, while they are continents away for product assembly, customer support etc.

Jan. 31 2012 12:37 PM
sue from brooklyn

The kitchen staff are truly the last vestige of endentured servitude in the 21rst century.

Jan. 31 2012 10:53 AM

Restaurant work is the last vestige of endentured servitude in the 21rst century.

Jan. 31 2012 10:33 AM
Pete from New York

If ethics were a consideration in how we did business - particularly with regard to how workers are treated - then some of the economic unbalance we have might be addressed.
It's easy to outsource jobs to places and conditions that we wouldn't accept within our own borders but in the end we all pay a price for being prepared to allow others in faraway places to be exploited - such things enable companies to make bigger profits on the mark-up and deliver goods/services at lower prices but if fair wages and work conditions were a consideration in transactions we might take more interest (and pride) in domestic working conditions - rather than taking the path that seems favoured by some in the Republican party, which is to allow a drop in standards.

Jan. 31 2012 09:49 AM

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